Race relations in the United States were not a subject that I had a deep knowledge and understanding of before participating in the Marshall Memorial Fellowship Program. I had a very general and basic knowledge of the history of the civil rights movement. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and his famous “I have a dream” speech were not unknown to me. I was also aware of the excitement and comments after President Obama’s election. I followed the Ferguson events closely in the newspapers. I would define myself as a student of race relations, but not more than that. But I can say that this was the issue that I learned the most during the MMF Program.
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis immediately piqued my interest when I learned I would be visiting the city. Built around the Lorraine Hotel, it was in this location that Dr. King was assassinated. The museum exhibits the history of the Civil Rights Movement in a fascinating way. During the visit, as the MMF fellows experienced, you learn a lot but you also feel a lot.
After our visit we asked each other, what would we feel, if we were African Americans? My answer was anger.
In Memphis the MMF group also visited the First Baptist Church – Broad, an African American church, on Sunday. This was my first experience of a Sunday service. It was not so difficult to notice the only white person, a woman, in the church except for myself and the other MMF Fellows. I understood what I saw in the church as voluntary segregation. Later I learned that there is another widely used term for this phenomenon: self segregation. I had expected religion to play a much more binding, socially cohesive role. I now better understand the point of Martin Luther King’s statement: "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." It would appear that nothing has changed and this statement is still bitterly true.
That Sunday also made me aware of the fact that religion (or church) plays a crucial role for African Americans to overcome anger and alienation. Enthusiasm, inspiration, interaction and dedication of the African Americans in the church were amazing.
It was shocking to hear from all Americans, white, black or brown, that racism is widespread in American society. One African American said that you could encounter racism every day. White Americans were easily accepting of the deep rooted racism in their society in a way that distanced themselves from the racists. In Chicago I was perplexed when an old African American claimed: “In the United States we have not discussed racism thoroughly so far.” After being exposed to a bombardment of such brave arguments I got confused regarding how to interpret them. Do they show the wisdom of awareness or easiness of complacency? 24 days were not enough to have the right answer. But I think it is probably mixed of both.
All in all, after 24 days I have understood that race issue in the US is complex and hard solve. Do I have any policy recommendations? No, I am not that bold to make big sentences with limited knowledge and experience. But I can without doubt say that race issue will occupy the public debate in the US in the coming years. I hope it does not make the headlines.
Ömer Güler, vice consul at the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey, is a Spring 2015 European Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.